Paul Verhoeven's twisted rape tale hands woman the power at Cannes

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (right) and French actress Isabelle Huppert (left) pose during the photocall for Elle.
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (right) and French actress Isabelle Huppert (left) pose during the photocall for Elle.PHOTO: EPA

CANNES, France (AFP) - A twisted rape thriller by Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven drew rave reviews on Saturday in Cannes as one of two films about a woman trying to prise back control from her attacker.

With its radical take on the aftermath of a brutal sex crime, the Dutch director's latest movie Elle had everything to set critics on edge before the screening.

But the story of a powerful woman played by French actress Isabelle Huppert, who is assaulted and embarks on a dangerous game with her attacker, was a surprise hit for its portrayal of a woman taking matters into her own hands.

Verhoeven told AFP his film was not a traditional tale of revenge, but a woman who "takes another route" and draws her rapist back into her life.

Huppert, 63, who some critics said had delivered the performance of her career, told journalists that it was the fact that her character "does not react in a predictable manner that creates the tension."

There is little to explain her motivations or true feelings towards her attacker, and there is an intentional "ambiguity to everything", said Verhoeven.

French website L'Express hailed the film which also drew plenty of dark laughs from the audience.

"One can already hear screams of bloody murder about the unacceptable link between rape and pleasure. It has nothing to do with that," wrote its critic.

The movie is based on the book titled Oh... by Philippe Dijan, and Verhoeven said the moral aspects of the story were never taken into consideration.

"We all felt that this was a story that had meaning, but not a feminist meaning or an anti-feminist meaning," said Verhoeven.

The Guardian's Nigel Smith tweeted that the film was "perverse, hilarious and insanely pleasurable".

The author and screenwriter Dijan dismissed views that Huppert's character had fallen in love with her attacker.

"She is someone who tries not to obey all the codes of society," he said.

Huppert said she was not worried about the reaction to her character's bizarre relationship with her rapist.

"It is not a statement about a woman being raped and accepting it. It doesn't mean it happens to all women in the world. It happens to that woman in particular as an individual," said Huppert.

Variety said Elle could be a career high for the 77-year-old Danish director of Showgirls and Robocop.

Verhoeven said he returned to Europe for his first-ever French film as its angle on rape was seen as too "amoral and unacceptable" in the United States.

"At least in France, I believe that people get it. That people are willing to accept this somewhat strange, not middle-of-the-road kind of thinking.

"For the rest I don't know, it might be easier for Europeans to accept it."

The question of how a woman reacts to her attacker was also raised in the latest film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, The Salesman, which also premieres on Saturday.

A couple is thrown into turmoil after an attack on the wife (Taraneh Alidoosti) in their home - the full nature of which is never clear - sends her husband on a revenge mission.

However, she does not want him to exact the retribution he plans, and presents him with an ultimatum that she will leave him if he goes ahead with it, handing power back to her traumatised character.

"I think both men and women are capable of violence, and a violence they think is legitimate," Farhadi told AFP in an interview.

"Around the world one of our main challenges is violence that appears legitimate to those who carry it out."